My First Fishing Trip North
by Erick Erickson
In the fall of 1912, I was working on a threshing outfit at Foam Lake and on that crew was a man who owned a fishing outfit at Dore Lake, where he had fished the previous winter. He hired me to go fishing with him for the following winter. We were to leave in a few days so I went to a storekeeper who, fortunately, was an old fisherman from Lake Winnipeg, and knew exactly what clothes I would need. He outfitted me with a complete set of clothes. On November 8th we entrained for Saskatoon and Prince Albert. The crew consisted of ten of us, nine fishermen and the cook. We arrived in Prince Albert and had to wait for a while for the train to be made up for Big River. Prince Albert station platform was packed with lumberjacks who were heading for the cordwood camps north of Prince Albert and the lumber camps at Big River. They had pulled in a train with only one coach, and they kept adding coaches on until they finally had us all packed in like canned sardines.
Every seat was taken and the aisles were full of men standing. They weren't all sober either, and it didn't take long before someone stepped on someone else's toes and a brawl was on.
However, they were quickly subdued. The track was terribly rough and shortly some of them got sick, either from whiskey or seasickness. Shellbrook was the only town north of Prince Albert. Canwood had a livery barn and one house; Debden, a tar paper shack and from there on nothing to Big River, except a few cordwood camps.
At that time Big River was a booming town and a great help to the homesteaders and farmers who were establishing themselves on the prairies. That winter, 3,000 men were hired in the bush at Big River. There was a special train to take them out. What a flood of men!
We arrived at Big River and managed to retrieve our baggage and blankets and carry them a half-mile down the track where a bunkhouse was ready for us. Early next morning we heard the tote team pulling out for the camps with the lumberjacks. The camps had already been prepared by the cooks and flunkies. There were four or five lovely horse teams with loads of provisions, feed, baggage, and skinners probably sitting on top of their tank sleighs. Walking behind them were hundreds of lumberjacks headed for the camp and a good meal because the company was known for its good cooks. Many a hungry homesteader got the wrinkles taken out of his stomach that winter working for the company.
We immediately set to work gathering our equipment and hired a team to take us to the south end of Stoney Lake where a Native by the name of Alex DeLaronde kept a trading post and a stopping place. Here we were introduced to Northern Cuisine - bannock and lard; jackfish and rabbit stew. There were millions of bush rabbits in the country that fall and the Natives were living high off the hog.
There was a small bunkhouse that we slept in. Here we acquired an addition to the crew, and in spite of our efforts, bathing and washing out underwear and hanging it out in 40 below weather, they stayed with us for the duration. We spent two days building our sleighs and getting our gear ready. The boss bought five lovely sleigh dogs and I was elected to drive three of them hauling a tremendous load of equipment. Another man drove two dogs and the balance of the men hauled a sleigh, two men on each sleigh.
The first day out we made the narrows on Stoney Lake, eighteen miles, and camped for the night - all dead tired as we were not used to this type of travelling.
Next day the lake was open, but we followed the shore of Soup Kitchen Bay until we came to open water at Gallant's Point. Here we were in a predicament, as there was open water right to the shore and great boulders on the shore that we could not possibly get our sleighs around the point. In the crew, there was a man by the name of Thorstein Sigurdson, who was about ten years older than I was at the time. He was a seasoned traveller and fisherman, as he was born and raised on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. He came to me in the morning and said, "Erick, will you come with me and we will go around the point and reconnoitre". So off we went. We found out it was impossible to take sleighs around the point. By the time we got around, we decided that the point could not be very wide, but we had no map of the lake so we decided to take a chance of cutting across the point and see if it was possible to bring the sleighs through
As luck would have it we came out within a few yards of the camping place and found that it was only approximately one and one-half miles through the point and fair travelling, as there was four inches of snow on the ground. It was decided we would cut a road across the point and try to follow the shore as much as possible to the north end of the lake, which was estimated to take us three or four days.
At the north end there was a portage to Sled Lake and it was therefore decided, that we would send two men ahead to hire an Indian by the name of Baptiste Merasty (also spelt Mirasty), to haul our load across the portage, as we knew that we could not haul them.
We were able to get through the point and follow the shore in places where there was an ice ledge on the beach. Where there was no ice ledge, we were obliged to climb over the sea wall and take to the bush. But we made the north end before the team arrived and were glad to see them arrive in the evening.
This portage had been an ancient pack trail between the two lakes, and consequently, it followed high land as much as possible and on this account, it was terribly rough and hilly and barely a trail through the bush. When we got to the Rabbit Hills, which was the roughest part, we hit a side hill and the sleigh hit a stump, dumping Baptiste and the load down the side hill amongst the trees. Baptiste came up out of the mess laughing like the dickens. It did not take us long to right the sleigh and load up. Baptiste Merasty was one of the top Natives that I have ever met. He was a seasoned traveller and the tougher the going, the happier he was. I have never seen him in later years that he couldn't master a bad situation. As a youth, he had been a Hudson's Bay dog runner and could run like a deer even in his later years. He had also made two trips to Winnipeg by ox cart from the south end of Green Lake.
We arrived at Sled Lake and had to load up our sleighs for the five-mile trip to his house, which was situated on the north side of the lake. His house consisted of four buildings adjoining the kitchen, living room, bedroom and storeroom. In the living room, there was a huge clay fireplace and I remember how satisfying it was to spread our blankets on the floor and watch the fireplace roar, as it was piled high with birch logs. This was the only habitation between Big River and Dore Lake.
That evening Baptiste set the women to work, making bannock for the rest of our trip. In the morning we bought some meat, dog food and potatoes from him and started for the mouth of Sled River. We carried on down the river and eventually arrived at Dore Lake.
When we got to Whelan's Point at the north end of Smith's Bay, we found the Lake wide open and were ten miles away from our camp, on the Big Island on Dore Lake. Here we were really in a predicament, as we had no boat and apparently there were none available, so we built a campfire and camped for the night. Early next morning we heard some dogs barking over on an island about one-half mile across the bay. In a very short time, we saw two men venture on the ice to come over to talk to us. One turned out to be a man by the name of George Smith, who had come down the Crooked and Beaver Rivers and up the Dore River to Dore Lake, to fish on Dore Lake that winter. He had a big canoe, which our boss immediately hired from him, but as the distance where we were was approximately ten miles over to the Island, we decided it would be better to go back around the Bay and approach the island from the west side, where it was only about four miles across to the island. We sent two men with the canoe and took our loads around to meet them. We arrived there in the evening, found the canoe, and started carrying our goods over to the island. It was a lovely night - no wind, bright moon shining, but quite cold. We started carrying our supplies over to the sand bar on the west side of the Big Island, where we built a bonfire to act as a beacon and also built a fire onshore. We spent the whole night transporting our men, dogs and equipment to the sand bar and managed to complete the trips by early morning. it had taken us twelve days to make the trip from Big River.
The camp wasn't much, as it had been built in a hurry and the stumps had not even been cut out, because we used them for seats. Now the cook took over and he did not turn out to be a professional, but he could boil fish and potatoes and that was about all we had, until an Indian, by the name of Michel Durocher, came by and sold us a quarter of moose. One problem with the cook was that he could not bake bread, except for baking powder biscuits and another problem was that he took snuff in his nose and had a continuous dribulator. The men sometimes wondered whether it was cinnamon or something else that coloured the buns and the hotcakes.
We spent the night of November 24th carrying our goods across to the island and we had no sooner arrived at the camp than the lake froze, so we spent a couple of days getting our nets ready to set. The lake was teeming with fish and our nets were full of fish then. It was so crowded with fish, that a considerable percentage was unfit for use. Diseased and razor backed, however, this did not matter because there were lots of them so we could discard whatever was unfit.
We were very busy and rushed all day to clear our nets. When we came home at night we had our chores to do: washing our mitts, as we used many pair to each man per day; nailing boxes and feeding the dogs. When our chores were done, at night for entertainment we had two remarkable characters in the camp. One of them could recite "Rimur" by the hour. Rimur is a type of epic poetry delivered in a sing-song manner - it was much used in Iceland entertainment in the long winter evenings. The other man entertained us by reciting from memory, the complete history of Cals 12's exploits and wars.
We worked every day, Sundays and all, till Christmas. Christmas wasn't much of a different day from the rest, because we had very little but fish and potatoes to eat. New Year's Eve blew up with a terrific blizzard and the boss decided that we would not fish the next day, as it had turned terribly cold during the night. So we decided we would do our laundry. New Year's Day was a nice bright clear day, but very cold. One of the boys had gone out to hang out his laundry when he noticed a team coming. We all rushed out and noticed it too. We expected provisions because they had been ordered and we were quite happy. All of a sudden the team disappeared and we realized at once what had happened, they had fallen through a crack. We all rushed out to where the team had dropped through, about one-half mile from shore.
In very short order we had the team out, as there were seven of us to pull the horses out, one at a time. We came just in time because the young Norwegian, who was driving the team, had got his hands wet and they were commencing to freeze. I pulled my Icelandic mitts off and gave them to him. We rushed the horses to shore as much as we could, because they were already so chilled, that they were staggering. There was no barn, but a brush lean-to alongside the camp. Shortly we realized we had to do something else or the horses would perish, so we took the horses right into camp. In about three or four hours we dried, fed, and blanketed the horses and put them into the lean-to for the night. We were rather disappointed that he had failed to bring any groceries for us, but we were quite happy that we were able to save his team.
We carried on fishing and grumbling about the grub till finally it was decided that because I could speak fluent English, I should be sent in to try and get some provisions for the camp, which I did.
It was quite a trip. I started out without any blankets. The snow on the lake was very heavy that winter, with a crust on it. I had ten miles to go till I hit the road, and almost every step I took, the crust would almost support me, but not quite, which was very tiresome. I had to make Merasty's that night. I had neglected to put insoles in my moccasins. When I hit the road it was hard as ice and the chips of ice from the holes made by the horses' shoes commenced to bother my feet, as there was not enough cushioning in my moccasins and socks. However, I made Merasty's later that evening.
Merasty's stopping place was the only decent place along the road. The rest of the stopping places had been built in the fall out of green logs with four walls and a tent roof. This was fine, as long as the stove was going, but the minute the stove went down, it was as cold as outside.
The next stopping place I had to make was Rat Lake and I arrived there late in the evening. The stopping place keeper was a grouchy old Canadian and for supper, I had a couple of buns, two prunes, and a cup of tea. I crawled into the top bunk to try to sleep for the night, but I shivered most of the night instead.
From there it was thirty-four miles to Big River and a lot of it was through open meadows. As there had been a storm since the last teams passed, it made heavy going, but I carried on till I was very tired and my feet were starting to bother me very badly. I commenced to get very sleepy and did not realize what a predicament I was in for a while. I laid down on the road and took a rest and all of a sudden I caught myself going to sleep. I then realized what was happening and was determined to carry on. This was the closest I have ever come to ending my career in the north. This was understandable because I was a greenhorn. When I was within three miles of Big River, the 5 o'clock whistle blew and in a few minutes, I met a man driving a single horse. I asked him about how far it was into town. He said about two and one-half miles. I managed to stagger into town and down to the bunkhouse. The next morning, my feet were so badly swollen that I was unable to stand but they brought me lunch to the bunkhouse. In a couple of days, I was O.K. and immediately set about arranging for a team to take provisions to the camp. I had a good trip back with them.
Very shortly we had our quota of fish caught and commenced pulling our nets and getting ready to depart from the lake. We had a very successful winter of fishing. I was sent back to Sled Lake to hire Baptiste Merasty to take us back to Big River, which I did.
I spent the next thirty-five years on the lakes fishing, freighting and trading. I might have continued except for Ole. Ole was a dour young Icelander, who worked for me one winter. That winter turned out to be very severe and it was very difficult to locate the fish. We finally found fish about five miles out on the lake from camp. One morning, we went out to lift the nets and we had no sooner got them out when it blew up a blizzard and terribly cold. We tried to complete lifting the nets but found that we had to give in and headed for home. By the time we got home, we were thoroughly chilled. I set about getting a fire going and Ole sat in the chair not saying a word. Finally, he blurted out, "Erick, a man doesn't have to be crazy to be a fisherman, but if he is a little mental, it would be an advantage." I kept thinking about this for a while and decided maybe Ole had something and I quit fishing.
Nels Edson's fish camp at Whalen's Bay.
Nels was employed for the Winton Brothers, in Minnesota. When the Winton Brothers purchased the mill and town of Big River in 1914, Nels decided to follow it and obtain a job in the Big River sawmill. Nels was employed at the mill for a while, then worked as a fisherman. He fished on the Northern Saskatchewan lakes for thirty-two winters. Nels had fishing outfits on La Plonge Lake, Besnard Lake, Pinehouse (Snake Lake) Dore Lake and Cree Lake.
The first fishing trip Nels undertook was to Dore Lake. The combined inexperience and adventurous spirit of Nels and his two companions resulted in a hazardous trip north. The three fishermen were given poor advice. They were told not to take supplies with them, as there were stopping places along the route. They began their trip at the south end of Stoney Lake. Each man had a sleigh loaded with their packs. The first night they camped on the shore of the Narrows. When the men awoke the next morning, they were greeted with a surprise - the ice had gone out of the bay. The men walked along the shore trying to find a way to cross the two-mile bay. They walked until they reached a point where the bay turned and started to flow in another direction. They found an abandoned boat, with a set of paddles and a hole in its' bottom, on the shore. The men needed desperately to cross the bay, as they were getting hungry. They decided to use the boat. They made it safely across.
Nels and his companions pushed on northward in search of a stopping place to obtain the food they needed. They hadn't eaten for three days. At the north end of Stoney, they found nothing. Tired and hungry, they journeyed on to another stopping place halfway between the north end of Sled Lake. When they arrived they found abandoned buildings; no people or food. It was too early for these halfway houses to be opened. Hungry, desperate, and discouraged after many days of travelling, the inexperienced fishermen finally discovered Baptiste Mirasty's fishing camp on the shore of Sled Lake. Joyfully, the men sat down to a meal of baked fish and bannock.
The following is a continuation of Nels' first fishing trip north, and his later experiences in Dore Lake, as told by himself.
At Baptiste Miraty's place we were told it was just a little way to Dore. We got to the Dore Lakeshore quite late at night; there was nobody there. We camped, and the next day walked up to Michel Point. An Indian family living there gave us fresh deer meat and bannock. The Indian told us not to go on the Lake, as it had only frozen overnight. It was a good seven miles to our fish camp at Spruce Point. We started out with the ice cracking at every step. One blow of the hatchet and we would go through. The men at the camp had expected that we would have gone through the ice. But somehow we made it.
Next morning the boss, Ari Arison, said there were too many men for this camp and one of us would have to go to the camp on La Plonge Lake with a dog team. I had never seen a dog team before, so didn't know much about driving the dogs. After a day's rest, I left. He told me just to follow the shore past the islands and when I came to a bare point, I would find a winter road and from there it would be ten miles to La Plonge Lake. At La Plonge Lake, I was to turn right a little ways and would find the fish camp. I got there by midnight. There were some fishermen already at the camp. I fished on La Plonge till after Christmas and then moved to Ile-a-la-Crosse.
In the fall of 1916, I went back to La Plonge and fished for Harry Sharpe. I liked fishing. In the fall of 1917, Ole Skivak and I rented an outfit from Ernie Brownsfield and each hired one man. We fished eighty nets that winter, on Dore Lake. We built our camp before fishing started, on the north side of Big Island.
In 1918, the year of the Flu, we hired two men each, but on account of the Flu, only two men came. Mrs Karen Frederickson, later my wife, came up and cooked for us that winter. There was only one other white woman on Dore besides her; a Mrs Appleby.
On November 25, 1918, we decided to go from Big Island to the mainland to hunt moose. Max Erickson, Ole Skivak and I went out and tested the ice and thought it was plenty thick. We each hooked up a dog team, (five dogs each) and headed for the north shore. We passed Moose Island. I was taking care of the dogs, and Max and Ole, a pole between them, went ahead to test the ice. It was the first day the dogs were hooked up and I had trouble keeping them straightened out. Since we only had a half-mile to go and since the ice was good this far, I called to them and told them to come back and take care of their dogs. I hurried and got my dogs ready to go, as I was cold. I only went about two hundred yards, when I struck thin ice. Fortunately, the dogs got across; however, the last dog broke through the ice but was pulled out by the others. I was standing on the back of the toboggan. I jumped off but broke through. I went way down and every time I tried to get on top of the ice, I would break through again. Ole Skivak saw me in the water. By pushing the pole in front of him, he got the end over me. As I went down for the third time I thought, "This is my last." I was just able to reach up and grasp the pole with one finger. He pulled me up to the top of the water. Max had a long tail rope on his toboggan, and he untied it and threw it to me. I tied it around me and they were able to get back far enough, where the ice was safe and pull me out. I laid on the ice exhausted. My friends forced me to get up and move. They found a way around this hole and got to the shore, where they built a good fire. I sat by the fire and thawed out. I received some dry clothes from them. We then went hunting but were not successful. Later we recovered my rifle in twelve feet of water.
In the spring of 1919, my partner Ole Skivak, went to Norway, leaving me alone with the whole outfit. I rented the outfit from MR. Brownfield for another year. I had two men besides myself and we did well. I bought my own outfit that spring.
I married Karen Frederickson in the spring of 1920. We liked Dore Lake so much, we had our honeymoon there. We stayed there in winter and summer for six years. I built a camp in Whalen's Bay, in 1920. These were the best years of my life. Nothing to bother us. We had a big garden in Whalen's Bay and sometimes when we came to Big River late in the fall, all the gardens in town were frozen, but ours was still green. We could raise ripe tomatoes on the vine. We had fresh fish, fresh deer meat and moose meat, whenever we needed it.
We were isolated in the summer. We travelled by boat to the south end of Sled Lake and walked to Stoney Lake, hoping to meet someone with a boat, so we could come down the Lake. I started farming in 1928, four miles north of Big River. I farmed in the summer and fished in the winter.